You've undoubtedly come across the term ‘smart casual’ several times before. But what does it actually mean, and more importantly, how can you master the smart-casual dress code this season? Smart casual is arguably the one area where men most struggle when it comes to their outfits.
Why? It’s such a grey area and often tricky to define – everyone seems to have their own unique take on just what constitutes ‘smart casual’ — given that it’s a dress code that can be applied just as easily to a wedding or an out-of-office function as to a Sunday lunch.
On the surface, smart casual seems reasonably straightforward — not too casual yet not too smart — but in reality, it’s rarely that simple. Faced with a smart casual dress code, many men are perplexed. Does a sharp suit teamed with leather trainers make the grade? How about a blazer with an open-neck shirt and jeans? It tends to leave most men asking themselves, what is smart casual?
See, it’s not always easy to qualify. Since smart casual is such a broad dress code, with so many outfits seemingly ticking the box, it’s harder than most to really pin down.
But as smart casual becomes more and more mainstream (it’s now a commonly stated dress code on many invitations), it’s important to master the look and to have a few smart casual options ready in your wardrobe artillery. After all, when done correctly, smart casual — which, as a rule of thumb, can be interpreted as a look that is considered yet informal — can be one of the most versatile styles a man can wear.
Rather handily, given that so many styles of outfit fit neatly into the smart casual category, that means there’s a wealth of choice, whatever your personal style, body shape or budget. So, whether you’re a denim connoisseur, a sucker for sharp tailoring or someone who places priority on comfort, there’s a number of ways that you can easily dress them up or down to create a smart casual look that works for you.
SMART CASUAL OUTFIT IDEA 1 - SUIT & TRAINERS
It’s a favourite look of style hounds, but teaming a razor-sharp suit with trendy trainers is strictly for the fashion-forward man. It’s gaining momentum, though, and ticks the smart casual box perfectly.
Wearing a suit with sneakers is a tricky combination to pull off since, essentially, it involves taking one of the smartest and most traditional pieces in menswear (i.e. the suit) and pairing it with footwear that is resolutely casual (i.e. the trainer).
If styled correctly, though, suit-and-sneakers is a smart casual look that’s brilliantly contemporary and flags your interest in fashion. With the right footwear (leather trainers, ideally), it can even be office-appropriate on a Dress-Down Friday.
The key to nailing the suit and trainers look is to keep things plain and simple. Opt for an understated suit in, say, charcoal grey or a dark navy. Keep the rest of the outfit understated, holding off any bold patterns or colours. Some box-fresh white (alternatively, brown or even black) leather trainers create a sleek look, while an old-school-style pair in suede will give the outfit a trendy finishing touch.
SMART CASUAL OUTFIT IDEA 2 - BLAZER & JEANS
A blazer and jeans (or even chinos, moleskins or fine cords) is another mix of two polar opposite items, yet it’s an ideal choice for smart casual as it looks as if you mean business while loosening up a little.
Start with a blazer and you have the smart box ticked from the offset. It shouldn’t match your trousers – in fact, the outfit will look best when it doesn’t. Try to avoid anything you’d wear for work. Instead, make a statement with your jacket’s colour or pattern, and consider fabrics such as tweed, wool or, in the summer, a dapper linen.
Conversely, you can, of course, play it safe with a neutral that allows you to introduce colour with the rest of the outfit – whether it be a shirt (tie and waistcoat optional) or a polo neck sweater.
Don’t be afraid to personalise your outfit with a pocket square – it takes just seconds to tuck it into the front of your blazer, but a well-chosen pocket square can upgrade any smart casual outfit.
While distressed and faded jeans are to be avoided when working the smart casual look, a pair of dark, fitted denims will always look the part alongside a smart blazer. Just steer clear of any elaborate denim washes and, if possible, choose jeans that are a darker shade than your blazer, which will ensure you don’t create a top heavy, and therefore messy, finish.
To complete the smart casual look, round everything off with some classy footwear. You can’t go wrong with some polished Chelsea boots or a pair of dressy loafers. Alternatively, look to quality leather brogue boots, which will add a classy edge to your look, or some dapper derbies for laid-back finesse.
SMART CASUAL OUTFIT IDEA 3 - ROLL NECK JUMPER
Roll-neck, polo neck, turtleneck… call it what you will, this humble piece of knitwear is certainly having a ‘moment’ in menswear right now. And, better still, it’s one of the best smart casual garments any man can have in his wardrobe, boasting all the comfort of a crew neck sweat, but with the added benefit of being significantly smarter.
If you’re choosing a roll-neck for your smart casual outfit, make sure that it’s made from good quality materials — cheap versions will last just a few washes before breaking out in unsightly bobbles — and, ideally, is devoid of any print or pattern; plain is best.
Down below, team it with your casual trousers of choice (dark denims, pristine chinos or slim cords will all work well) and any of the usual suspects in smart casual footwear (loafers, desert boots, etc.) for a look that’s stylish yet comfortable.
Up top, there are numerous ways you can dress up or accessorise with a roll-neck, but simplicity is always recommended. If you’ll be indoors, a dapper blazer is a perfect companion to your knitwear. The options for outerwear, meanwhile, are vast - a fitted bomber-style jacket will add a chic contemporary edge, while a plain trench (cream or navy will look the business) will add a touch of class. You’ll never go wrong with a single- or double-breasted camel overcoat, either.
SMART CASUAL OUTFIT IDEA 4 - SWEATSHIRT & SHIRT
It’s at the more casual end of smart casual, certainly, but a stylish shirt-and-jumper combo is a sound choice for men who are looking for an accessible and understated look.
While sweatshirts are resoundingly casual, a good quality design will lend some luxury to your look, raising the outfit into smart casual territory. Steer clear of anything brazenly logo-ed and, instead, keep it classy with something in, ideally, cashmere or Merino wool, and in a timeless neutral such as beige, grey or navy.
As it will only be partially visible, the shirt offers far more scope for colour and personality. If the mood takes you, a printed (polka dot, for instance) or patterned (vivid checks or business-like stripes, perhaps) shirt will work. Equally, a plain, crisp Oxford will go with everything and take you anywhere.
Depending on the occasion, recommended smart casual trouser options run the gamut from trusty dark denims to moleskins or even smart flannel pants. Chinos are also an astute choice – the tailoring is similar to that of formal trousers, but they’re much lighter and more comfortable. They’ll also give you the option of injecting a pop of colour, especially if you’re playing it safe with your sweater and shirt.
SMART CASUAL OUTFIT IDEA 5 - GRANDFATHER COLLAR SHIRT
Grandfather collar shirts are a fashionable smart casual option and a great alternative if you feel that you’ve been playing it too safe with your traditional button-ups. This collar style is resolutely casual but, when worn with appropriate pieces, is perfectly home when working the smart casual look.
Grandfather collar shirts look best in plain colours – anything from fresh white to masculine shades such as grey, black and navy – and in a slim-fit. Depending on the occasion, they can be teamed with anything from tailored denims to smart flannels.
As ever, what footwear you wear is largely dependent on your choice of trousers, but safe bets include loafers, brogues, desert boots and monk straps.
Looking for more tips and advice? Check out the How-To and Smart Casual sections to keep up with the latest trends and improve your style game.